Māori gardened on the Volcanic Plateau where feasible. Early European travellers saw plantations of corn, melons, pumpkins and kūmara (sweet potato) in the Tongariro River delta, as well as thousands of ducks. There were gardens at Tokaanu and at pā around the Rotorua lakes.
The missionary Thomas Chapman grew cereals, fruit and vegetables at Koutū, on the shore of Lake Rotorua, in the 1830s. In the 1850s Thomas Grace, another missionary, drove sheep from Hawke’s Bay to Pūkawa on the west side of Lake Taupō, and kept them near the mission station. More substantial flocks were run on the open country along the Napier–Taupō road.
The first butter factory was built at Ngongotahā in 1910. Canterbury investors and settlers were active in the area between Rotorua and Taupō around before and during the First World War. Aucklander Edward Vaile was an early farmer in the Broadlands district, as he recounted in Pioneering the pumice (1939), and W. J. Parsons took up land at Ātiamuri in the 1910s.
In 1928, blocks of Crown land were offered to settlers at Guthrie (named after a former Minister of Lands) and Ngākuru, south of Rotorua. At Reporoa, low-lying swamplands were reclaimed and turned into farmland. Farms were also established where native forest had been cleared, north and west of Taupō.
However, livestock on the plateau were plagued by a wasting disease called bush sickness. Many scientists worked on the problem. It was solved in 1935 when they realised that a lack of cobalt in the volcanic soil – easily fixed with fertiliser – triggered the illness.
Farming Māori land
One of the first land blocks in Native Minister Apirana Ngata’s Māori land development scheme, begun in 1929, was at Horohoro, south-west of Rotorua. There were difficulties – the farms were usually not viable, houses and cowsheds were inadequate, and many of the first settlers went to work at the Waipā timber mill instead. Development of the land resumed after the Second World War.
A strong cup of tea
In 1905, Apirana Ngata met Te Arawa leader Tai Mitchell at a hui (meeting) in Ōhinemutu. After the hui, Mitchell invited Ngata for a cup of tea and the two became firm friends. More than 20 years later, when Ngata sought to include Te Arawa lands in his land development scheme, Mitchell was instrumental in getting the Horohoro scheme off the ground.
The later 20th century
After the Second World War, returned soldiers began farming at Rerewhakaaitu, Rotomahana and the Waikite valley. Aerial topdressing was first carried out in 1951.
Aspiring farmers continued to ballot for Crown-developed land into the 1980s, while lifestyle blocks have brought newcomers into many rural districts. Since the 1990s, the boom in dairying has led to tracts of plantation forest being converted to farmland. Many overseas tourists visit the Agrodome near Rotorua to see farming displays.